A Response to William Lane Craig on the Historical Adam
Adam Was the First Human and Genesis 1-11 is Not Mythical
In one of the most confusing articles I’ve read, William Lane Craig—an esteemed Christian philosopher—tells us that Adam is both historical and figurative (or metaphorical).
The piece, entitled “The Historical Adam,” has just run in First Things. In what follows, I’m going to quote Craig and follow his words with some brief theological interaction. This format is necessary, as the reader will soon see, because Craig essentially makes two arguments in the piece that oppose one another. If I just summarized this article, you wouldn’t necessarily see this two-sidedness.
Craig: Just as Abraham is presented as a historical person, so his ancestors are presented as historical persons. If the first eleven chapters of Genesis are in one sense myth, they are in another sense history.
Commentary: This assertion, given early in the article, sets up the confusion that follows. From the outset Craig does not straightforwardly say only that Adam and Genesis 1-11 (his focus) are myth. Rather, he wants to affirm two things of the subjects in question: they are myth even as they are in some sense history. Readers familiar with the history of liberal Protestant hermeneutics will note at this point that this path is not fresh, but well-trodden. Though I have in no way assumed that Craig is a liberal Protestant to this point, it is important to note that he is choosing the interpretive trail blazed by those who gave up the historic Christian faith not long ago.
Craig: Genesis presents a history of the world that is extremely short by ancient standards, bound tightly by father-son genealogies. We should not imagine that the genealogies contemplate the enormous leaps that would be necessary to bring them into harmony with what we know of the history of mankind; but neither should we imagine that they comprise purely fictitious characters. We can avoid these antitheses by understanding the brief history they chronicle as a mytho-history, not to be taken literally.
Commentary: This is a second example of Craig’s interpretive scheme. He is avowedly against taking Genesis “literally,” and is actively promoting a reading he calls “mytho-history.”
Craig: If Genesis 1–11 functions as mytho-history, then these chapters need not be read literally. The accounts of the origin and Fall of man are clearly metaphorical or figurative in nature, featuring as they do an anthropomorphic deity incompatible with the transcendent God of the creation account.
Commentary: Here he unpacks his interpretive scheme further. He goes on record, early on, as indicating that the creation account and fall account are “metaphorical” or “figurative.” This is clear as day in the article, and it is tremendously important. Craig is closing off a straightforward “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1-11. It is out of bounds. The thoughtful and scholarly reader of Genesis 1-11 thus rejects a one to one identification of the events of this portion as Scripture as occurring in real time the same way our day is unfolding right now.
It is worth noting at this point that the established hermeneutical standard among those who affirm Genesis 1-11 as historical is to read this chapter as “shaped” history. Genesis 1-11 is not wooden history, in other words. There are poetic elements in the literary flow of Genesis 1-11. Let us proceed with caution at this point, and strive for clarity: by this I do not mean that there are ahistorical features of this passage. I do mean that Genesis 1-11 has obviously been shaped and structured by Moses, just as the Gospels of the New Testament are “shaped” history. All material within both swaths of Scripture is historical, even as these accounts are set up to convey great theological truths, not simply report an hour-by-hour chronology of the events in question (though that is frequently what they do).
All this discussion means that Craig’s use of “literal” is unhelpful. Those who affirm Genesis 1-11 as historical or “literal” would not follow the wooden form of interpretation that Craig has set up as a fall guy for his mytho-historical hermeneutic.
Craig: Other aspects of the narratives would be fantastic, even to the Pentateuchal author himself, if taken literally. The idea of an arboretum containing trees bearing fruit that, if eaten, would confer immortality or yield sudden knowledge of good and evil must have seemed fantastic to the author. We are not dealing, after all, with miraculous fruit, as if God would on the occasion of eating supernaturally bestow upon the eater immortality or knowledge of good and evil against his divine will.
Commentary: I find not the setup of Genesis 1-3 “fantastic,” but Craig’s assumption that he knows the mindset of the “Pentateuchal author” to be fantastic. This is a shocking passage, frankly. It makes natural reason the standard of what is biblically feasible. This is a very dangerous standard indeed. Frankly, the natural man finds the resurrection of Christ fantastic. Many biblical elements likewise qualify as beyond belief for unregenerate humanity. But unregenerate humanity is not within 10,000 miles of being the standard of what is sound or unsound in Scripture (see 1 Cor. 1; 2:14). God is. This is a truly explosive argument by Craig that threatens to destabilize Christian doctrine in general, not just the historical Adam, the creation account, the fall, and the imputation of Adam’s sin to all humanity.
Craig: Since the Pentateuchal author has an interest in history, he intends for his narrative to be at some level historical, to concern people who actually lived and events that really occurred. But those persons and events have been clothed in the metaphorical and figurative language of myth.
Here again Craig fails to recognize Moses as the author of the Pentateuch. And here again Craig offers an incredibly confusing formulation. Genesis 1-11 is both “at some level historical” but at the same time “clothed in the metaphorical and figurative language of myth.” This is untenable, to put it plainly. You cannot have your hermeneutical cake and eat it too. This is a distinction that seems in the mind of the Philosophical Author to obtain, but that will not and cannot obtain in the real world.
I recognize that some in the evangelical guild today believe that they can hold to such a synthetic theology, a merged hermeneutic. But though like Craig they bring tremendous research, reading, and erudition to the task of trying to substantiate this pairing, they cannot pull it off. This is because, as evangelicalism worked through in the days of ascendant Barthian neo-orthodoxy, something cannot be both mythical and historical. It must be one or the other.
When you put these two qualities in a cage and tell them to get along, one ends up swallowing the other. As a spoiler, the mythical always wins out. If you doubt this claim, please feel free to consult the history of interpretation with regard to liberal Protestant exegesis. Mythology won the day over and over again in this camp; history lost over and over again. As stated earlier: this has all been done before. It didn’t work then, and it will not work now.
Craig: When we turn to the New Testament, we find the figure of Adam widely deployed, most importantly by Paul. Many scholars have attempted to distinguish between the literary Adam and the historical Adam. The literary Adam is a character in a story, specifically the stories of Genesis 2–3. The historical Adam is the person, if such there be, who actually existed—the actual individual whom the stories are allegedly about.
Commentary: There is no such distinction in the New Testament. Every time the “figure of Adam” is “deployed” by NT authors, they are referring to the historical Adam. If you use this admittedly simple reading key, you will save yourself a great deal of confusion and the real possibility of one day investing in one of those “Faith Deconstruction Seminars” that former evangelical personalities now offer for the low, low price of $299.
Craig: These distinctions are not drawn in order to weasel out of commitments on the part of New Testament authors to the truth of the Genesis stories and, hence, of the historical Adam. They are essential to our treatment of many New Testament passages, which, if interpreted as asserting more than truth-in-a-story, would be plausibly false. Intriguingly, some of these passages involve the citation of pseudepigraphal and mythological texts to whose truth we should not wish to be committed.
Commentary: Craig follows this paragraph by trying to convince the reader that some mythical or mythological elements seem to be engaged and even believed by NT authors and characters. Here again this claim takes our breath away. At best, it destabilizes confidence in the historicity of the Bible. There is no NT passage that asserts anything other than literal truth (understood not woodenly but nonetheless realistically). There is no historical account that has even a hint of myth in it. Whatever the extrabiblical sources say (and they say a great many things), the Bible is sui generis. It is one of a kind. It is all true.
This matters greatly: Genesis has no mythical elements. Job has no mythical elements. Matthew’s account of the 500 raised persons has no mythical elements. The Bible may have certain similarities to epics, myths, and other religions, sure. But the Bible is distinct from all such sources and documents and worldviews. It is not the word of men; it is the Word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
As so often has occurred in the past, we evangelicals are always in danger of losing our confidence in Scripture. We seem to battle perpetually with the temptation to read Scripture like other books. We confess sola Scriptura, but we so easily waver from it, looking to other sources for support and corroboration and guidance. Craig’s essay reminds us of these temptations that we all face, for it falls prey to them. Once more we see that the Reformation is in no sense over, and sola Scriptura is once again hanging in the balance from many different challengers.
Craig: On the basis of such examples, we can see how naive it is to argue that merely because some New Testament author refers to a literary figure, whether found in the Old Testament or outside it, that figure is asserted to be a historical person. In every case, we must pay close attention to the context in order to determine whether the New Testament is asserting a figure’s historicity or referring to the figure illustratively.
This is categorically wrong. If a NT author refers to a literary figure as positively existing, that figure is a historical person.
Craig: Turning to the many texts concerning Adam in the New Testament, we find that some of them do not necessarily go beyond illustrative reference to the literary Adam of Genesis. The statements of our Lord concerning Adam are plausibly illustrative. He begins by drawing attention to the literary Adam: “Have you not read . . .?” He then cites Genesis 1:27, “male and female he created them,” and weds this statement with Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This forms the basis for Jesus’s teaching on divorce. Jesus is interpreting the story of Adam and Eve to discern its implications for marriage and divorce, not asserting its historicity. Similarly, many of Paul’s references to Adam may be understood not to go beyond the literary Adam.
This is not a sound framing. Jesus is grounding his teaching on marriage and divorce in historicity. He is teaching truth, that is, at the same time that he stands on actual chronological occurrence recorded in his Bible. This is what the Bible does: it gives us real events, true events, and it unfolds their theological and spiritual significance. Events are not bare facts; neither are they freighted mythology. There is an elegant and indissoluble linkage of facticity and doctrine in the Word of God. Nowhere does doctrine depend upon a purportedly historical account that actually is ahistorical or transhistorical.
Jesus believes in Adam, a real person. He does not believe in a person who existed apart from the literary character of Genesis 1-3; he believes (rightly) in a person who is the literary character of Genesis 1-3. The same one referenced in the NT is the one depicted in real historical terms in the OT.
Craig: Paul’s expressions “before the law was given” and “from Adam to Moses” show that he is referring to real epochs of human history, which were affected by Adam’s act. It follows that Adam and his sin are asserted by Paul to be historical. What Paul asserts of the historical Adam does not, however, go beyond what we have already affirmed on the basis of our genre analysis of the primaeval history of Genesis 1–11—namely, that there was a progenitor of the entire human race through whose disobedience moral evil entered the world.
Here Craig confusingly tips his hand in the opposite direction than the way he has predominantly emphasized in this article. Now he affirms that “Adam and his sin” are “historical.” That seems straightforward enough. But actually it’s not. Craig follows this assertion by qualifying it through reference to his foregoing “genre analysis.” What did that “genre analysis” try to establish? That Genesis 1-11 is “mytho-history” and thus the creation and fall accounts are “metaphorical” or “figurative.”
I do not know Craig’s mind, to be honest. (I met him just once, in San Diego, and he was genial.) For my part, I do not have the ability to say what exactly he is doing here and throughout his article. He may be trying to affirm the historical Adam, but doing so after setting up an incredibly confusing and confused intellectual foundation for that affirmation. If this is in fact true, his foundation will not hold, and thus his affirmation cannot sustain itself. As stated, you cannot have history be both true and mythological (or figurative). This will not obtain. If, on the other hand, he is trying to both affirm and not affirm the historical Adam, he is in tremendously unstable territory. I pray the first is the case, and that Craig reverses course from here.
Neither option is remotely healthy for the church. A far clearer and more faithful way forward is this: we affirm that Genesis 1-11 is giving us the true account of the creation of mankind, fall of mankind, and early generations of human history. No character in the narrative is fake or mythical. No element in this section of Scripture (or any other) is imaginary. Instead, Genesis 1-11 is history. Like the Gospels, it is shaped history, written from different angles and with different points to make. It is not written according to all the conventions of modern historical chronology, therefore, and in no way need be.
The word “literal” means different things to different people. It is therefore a tricky word to use, and an easy one to dismiss as a summation of biblical hermeneutics. Much of Scripture is to be understood in straightforwardly literal terms, some passages are clearly symbolic, and all historical accounts are to be understood truthfully. That is, they actually occurred. Historicity undergirds facticity, and facticity grounds theology. Truth, said differently, depends upon history—real history that is true.
Craig: We may imagine an initial population of hominins—animals that were like human beings in many respects but lacked the capacity for rational thought. Out of this population, God selected two and furnished them with intellects by renovating their brains and endowing them with rational souls.
No, we need not imagine this. With apologies to John Lennon, we don’t need to imagine anything fanciful at all. What we need to do is trust the biblical text. We need to read the historical genre as history. We must not try to read some of history as true, namely the parts that make sense to the human mind, and some of history as mythical, namely the parts that some tell us don’t make sense to the human mind. We should trust the Word of God instead, presupposing it as truthful.
In the end, Craig’s essay leaves the careful and charitable reader confused. As I have been at pains to say, he denies that Genesis 1-11 is literally true, that this section of Scripture is factual and historical as presented. He argues instead for a strange synthesis: “mytho-history.” Yet then he doubles back on himself and seems, for a couple sentences at least, to affirm a historical Adam. For a moment, we begin to be preliminarily encouraged, but then he quickly refers us back to the previous mytho-historical framework he worked hard to establish.
As it stands, Craig’s essay “The Historical Adam” cannot rightly be said to affirm the historical Adam. The hermeneutical structure Craig himself creates defeats his momentary assertion of the truthfulness of Adam’s existence. In addition, by Craig’s lights, even an affirmation of Adam’s historicity must not be understood as straightforwardly identifying the literary character of Genesis in a one to one sense as the Adam (or man) discussed by Jesus and Paul. After all, the creation account is for Craig metaphorical or figurative. He has stated that early and often.
How troubling this is. It will not hold, and this formulation will not breed confidence in the doctrine of the Bible. In the final analysis, my guess is that Craig is trying both to extend an olive branch to highly intellectual skeptics and to shore up confidence among Christians who at some level take their cues from secular disciplines. He wants, I would wager, for these groups to be able to both trust the Bible and trust nonbiblical authorities whose claims seemingly conflict with the Bible. He wants a synthesis of faith and reason, it seems, per the dictates of our scientistic age.
If this supposition is right—and it is only a supposition—my prayer in conclusion is that Craig will correct this tortured paradigm, and that evangelicals will not embrace it. Strangely, as referenced above, this has all been tried by professing Christians before. This apologetic strategy did not pan out. As it turns out, losing historicity does not save Christianity; it abandons it, ultimately. A mere century ago, liberal Protestant exegesis purposefully detached from the historical Adam and the chronological truthfulness of Genesis 1-11 (and much more). Many spiritual casualties resulted; many came to doubt the Bible; many churches lost the light of Christ over time.
May we not go this way in our day. May we instead affirm the historical first Adam, and at the same time, affirm the historical second Adam. The two hang together; their federal representation cannot be severed, or the biblical metanarrative crashes into the dust. Each man truly lived, albeit with altogether different consequences. Through the first Adam came death; through the second Adam has come our salvation, and with it our commitment to believe all the Scriptures, and receive them not as the word of men, but as the Word of God.